Austrian election tests future for scandal-ridden far-right

DAILY SABAH WITH AGENCIES
Istanbul
Published 28.09.2019 00:00

Austrians will vote Sunday in an election meant to restore political normality after a scandal that brought down ex-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz's coalition government with the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) in May. Yet, it is unclear whether Kurz would revive the same coalition with the nationalists, whose troubles finished off his previous government, or tack leftward to seek an alliance with new partners.

The country of 8.8 million people in the heart of Europe has been run by a non-partisan interim administration under Chancellor Brigitte Bierlein, a former head of its top court, since the drama in spring. The election offers a test of the far-right party's recovery from the so-called "Ibiza-gate" scandal that forced out its leader of the past 14 years, Heinz-Christian Strache, leading to the snap polls being called.

The "Ibiza-gate" scandal broke when two German newspapers published hidden-camera video footage of Strache, filmed in an elaborate sting operation on the Spanish resort island of Ibiza in 2017. In the video, Strache appeared to offer public contracts in exchange for campaign help from a woman posing as a Russian oligarch's niece. Indirectly, Russia was implicated in the downfall of Kurz's government and in the corruption scandal.

FPOe's relations with Russia raise fears in West

The FPOe's closeness to Russia also caused problems, with fears among Austria's Western partners over possible leaks to Moscow of sensitive information. One image that stands out from the last right-wing administration is that of the foreign minister dancing with Russian President Vladimir Putin at her wedding, causing widespread derision in the country and abroad.

With conservative Sebastian Kurz tipped again to take power, possibly in another coalition with the far-right, the EU member's historically strong relationship with Russia is likely to endure. Kurz, who took power in 2017 at the age of 31, chose Moscow as the destination of his first official visit outside of the European Union in February 2018. Putin returned the courtesy almost four months later, describing Austria as a "long-time partner" on his sixth official visit to the country. Austria was the first EU member to receive him after Russia's controversial annexation of the Crimea region in 2014. Putin's frequent visits even caused U.S. President Donald Trump to question Kurz about it when he visited the White House in early 2019, according to a source close to the Kurz's People's Party (OeVP).

Vienna and Moscow also extended their gas contract last year for 20 years. When it was signed more than 50 years ago, it was the first such contract signed between the Soviet Union and a Western European country. Last year, Austria refused to expel Russian diplomats over the poisoning of a former double agent in Britain in March 2018, breaking ranks with other Western countries after London blamed Moscow for the incident.

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